Plato’s Academy

By Linda Mihalic

             …behold
Where on the Ægean shore a City stands
Built nobly, pure the air, and light the soil,
Athens, the eye of Greece, Mother of Arts
And Eloquence, native to famous wits
Or hospitable, in her sweet recess,
City or Suburban, studious walks and shades;
See there the Olive Grove of Academe,
Plato’s retirement, where the Attic Bird
Trills her thick-warbl’d notes the summer long,
There flowrie hill Hymettus with the sound
Of Bees industrious murmur oft invites
To studious musing; there Ilissus rouls
His whispering stream; within the walls then view
The schools of antient Sages…
—John Milton, Paradise Regained

Plato sited his Academy in a lightly wooded olive grove slightly northwest of Athens—consecrated as a gymnasia, a training ground for athletes—in the 6th century b.c. The Academy in 388 b.c.—and quickly grew into the first ‘university’ of the Western world wherein he and his students and other serious followers laid the foundations of Western philosophy and science 2500 years ago. The property itself had been dedicated in honor of the legendary Attic hero Academus (or Hecademus), thus the origin of its name.

Précis: The designation Academy, as a school of philosophy, is usually applied not to Plato’s immediate circle but to his successors down to the Roman Cicero’s time (106–43 b.c.e.). Legally, the school was a corporate body organized for worship of the Muses. The scholarch (headmaster) was elected for life by a majority vote of the members. Most scholars infer, mainly from Plato’s writings, that instruction originally included mathematics, dialectics, natural science, and preparation for statesmanship. The Academy continued until 529 c.e., when the emperor Justinian closed it. (Britannica 2024)


The Academy Scholarchs, and Platonists

Diogenes Laërtius divided his history of Plato’s Academy into three eras: the Old, the Middle, and the New. Plato was the head or scholarch of the original or Old Academy; Arcesilaus headed the Middle Academy; Lacydes was scholarch of the New. Such divisions are subjective, dependent on the list-maker’s point of view. One could as easily order a list as Original Platonists, those philosophers who actually knew Plato or identified themselves as his followers; Middle Platonists, when Antiochus of Ascalon disavowed skepticism (90 b.c.); to Plotinus (early 3rd century a.d.) who reframed Plato’s corpus into Neoplatonism, fusing philosophy with mysticism. Such designations made centuries after their members flourished are equally subjective since many of them left little or no extant writings as evidence, often only mentioned as notes in a later author’s work. The summary below is ordered by scholarch and dates.

Original Academy Scholarchs and Platonists (348–264 b.c.): Plato’s immediate successor as scholarch of the original Academy was his nephew Speusippus of Athens (347-339 b.c.), followed by Xenocrates of Chalcedon (339-314 b.c.). Speusippus rejected Plato’s doctrine of Ideas; both men attempted to align Plato’s work with Pythagorean number theory. Other scholarchs were Polemo of Athens (314-269 b.c.), and Crates of Athens (269-266 b.c.). Among the other notable members of the Academy were Aristotle, Heraclides, Eudoxus, Philip of Opus, and Crantor. Unfortunately, the good influence of the Academy’s Platonic tone waned as it closed the great questions with mind-deadening intellectual skepticism.

Middle Academy Scholarchs and Platonists (316–241 b.c.): Arcesilaus of Pitane became scholarch around 266 b.c.. Under him, the Academy practiced complete intellectual treason and grafted skepticism onto Plato’s work as a central tenet, jettisoning the doctrine of Ideas. Arcesilaus was followed by a series of scholarchs of whom little if anything is known except that they, too, were skeptics: Lacydes of Cyrene (241-215 b.c.), Evander jointly with Telecles (205-165 b.c.), both of whom were from Phocis, and Hegesinus of Pergamon (c. 160 b.c.).

New Academy Scholarchs and Platonists (241–68 b.c.): The New Academy began with Carneades of Cyrene (155 b.c.); its focus remained skeptical, denying the possibility of knowing any absolute truth: second-rate thinkers generate second-rate opinions posing as ideas. Next was Clitomachus (129-110 b.c.), Aeschines of Neapolis and Charmadas, who shared the leadership with Clitomachus when he was an old man—skeptics all. After them, Philo of Larissa (110-84 b.c.), 1 was the last undisputed head of the Academy. According to Barnes (1998), 2 [i]t seems likely that Philo was the last Platonist geographically connected to the Academy.

Thus the carrion-eaters disposed of the carcass of a great mind’s legacy. It would take several more idealists—old souls in new bodies—to reawaken the divine hunger for Truth, Beauty, and the Good.  For a comprehensive treatment of Platonists and those related to the Academy, see The Scholarchs and Platonists.

The Physical Destruction of the Academy

In 90 b.c., Aristion who made himself tyrant of Athens (88-86 b.c.) until his death, invited Mithridates—one of history's worst tyrants—to help him liberate Athens from the Romans. A true Oriental potentate, devoted to the use of force, ruling with an iron fist, Mithridates helped by executing some 80,000 Romans and Italians in the city and its provinces. In 86 b.c., the Roman General and Consul Lucius Cornelius Sulla retaliated viciously and vindictively destroyed the Academy because the tyrant Aristion had offended him. Plutarch (Life of Sulla) describes him vividly, saying Sulla was,

“…possessed by some dreadful and inexorable passion for the capture of Athens, either because he was fighting with a sort of ardour against the shadow of the city’s former glory, or because he was provoked to anger by the scurrilous abuse which had been showered from the walls upon himself and Metella [his wife] by the tyrant Aristion, who always danced in mockery as he scoffed. This man’s spirit was compounded of licentiousness and cruelty…and in these her last days he had fixed himself, like a fatal malady, upon a city which had previously passed safely through countless wars, and many usurpations and seditions.” [Finally, Sulla] “…laid hands upon the sacred groves and ravaged the Academy, which was the most wooded of the city’s suburbs, as well as the Lyceum.”

Sadly for Sulla, Athens lacked sufficient plunder to make him as wealthy as he desired to be to recoup his family’s patrician status and to place him as a senator. 3 Plutarch says that Sulla retired to a life spent in dissolute luxuries, and he “consorted with actresses, harpists, and theatrical people, drinking with them on couches all day long.” Thus, Plato’s Academy was destroyed by exactly the same sort of dissolute tyrant a politically corrupt culture heralded as its strong-man ruler, just as Plato had so aptly described in Republic IX.

After the sacking of Athens, the site of the Academy was abandoned. Antiochus of Ascalon, a pupil of Philo, returned to Athens in 84 b.c., and resumed teaching but not in the Academy. Cicero expounds:

“In the effort to combine the theories of Plato with certain Aristotelian principles, and still more largely with principles adopted from the Stoics, he [Antiochus] prepared the way for the Neoplatonists. He endeavoured to show that the scepticism of the later Academy was not justified by the Platonic doctrine, and that the chief points of the doctrine of the Stoics are to be found in Plato. He differed from the Stoics by denying the equality of vices, as well as by asserting that virtue, though it leads to a happy life, does not of itself produce the happiest life. Otherwise he is almost entirely in accord with them” (Cicero, Academica Book II, 43).

Despite the physical destruction of the Academy in the 1st century b.c., philosophers continued to teach Platonism in Athens during the Roman era, yet not until 410 a.d. did certain Platonist philosophers, many of whom were later known as Neoplatonists, revive the true idea of the academy.

Although the Academy’s 473-year life as the foremost center of philosophical life in the Western world was ending, Plato’s philosophy was reemerging: New Platonists were transforming the gods as personalities into symbols representing essential principles and elements in the Greek philosophical system. This was the origin of Neoplatonism, which emerged as a syncretic system drawing from many sources. While Neoplatonism may appear to have failed in the religious area, its effect on man’s thinking was profound, unmistakable. As idealists, we view it as the eternal effect of God as the Good, the True, and the Beautiful on and within our souls.

The last philosophers of the revived Neoplatonic Academy in the 6th century were drawn from throughout the Hellenistic cultural world, reflecting the broad syncretism of the common culture of that time. In 529 a.d. the Christian Byzantine Emperor Justinian ended the funding of the Neoplatonic Academy, closing its doors forever. Curious as to the why of Justinian’s decision, we uncovered this tidy thesis:

Why did Justinian close the Academy in 529? Competition. He had just founded a new University in Constantinople which was directly under imperial control…. When an earthquake hit the renowned university of Beirut in 551 he took the opportunity to close it down (officially it was ‘moved’ but it never recovered) while transferring its most distinguished faculty to the capital. Ruthless? Yes. Anti-intellectual religious fanaticism? Not quite. (Brownworth 2011)

Regardless of his reason, Justinian ended the first and longest in existence (939 years) center of higher learning in the Western world. To some, night had fallen and the Dark Ages were well underway: As one Italian Renaissance scholar (Petrarch 1367) wrote Amidst the errors there shone forth men of genius; no less keen were their eyes, although they were surrounded by darkness and dense gloom, 4 The true Idealist, however, knows that nothing, no sophistry, no worldly brainwashing agenda or forceful power can kill or destroy the Truth and Beauty of the Good, for it is of God, the Greatest Good. For a full exposition of Neoplatonism and its most notable representatives, see The Neoplatonists.


Endnotes

1^ Oxford Classical Dictionary, 3rd ed. (1996), s.v. “Philo of Larissa.”

2^ Jonathan Barnes “Academy,” Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis, 1998.

3^ Sulla’s motivations, per Dr. Willard Toussaint. “History of the Roman Empire”, author’s lecture notes, date uncertain, Adrian College, Michigan.

4^ Petrarch (1367) “Apologia cuiusdam anonymi Galli calumnias” (Defence against the calumnies of an anonymous Frenchman), in Petrarch, Opera Omnia, Basel, 1554, p. 1195. This quotation comes from the English translation of Mommsen's article, where the source is given in a footnote. Cf. also Marsh, D., ed., (2003), Invectives, Harvard University Press, p. 457.

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Plato of Athens
428 B.C. — 348 B.C.
Premier Greek philosopher, the Father of Idealism in its many facets: philosophy, metaphysics, ontology, psychology, mysticism, esthetics, ethics, education, literature, and politics.


Plato


Recommended Reading

The Platonic Academy of Athens: The World’s First University by Nick Kampouris

A Short History of Plato’s Academy by David Fideler


References

Britannica, Editors of Encyclopaedia. Academy. Encyclopedia Britannica, most recently revised and updated by Amy Tikkanen, February 9, 2024.

Brownworth, Lars. “Why did Justinian close the Platonic Academy?” Finding History (blog). July 12, 2011. https://larsbrownworth.com/blog/2011/07/12/why-did-justinian-close-the-platonic-academy/.

Kalligas, Paul, Chloe Balla, Effie Baziotopoulou-Valavani, and Vassilis Karasmanis, eds. Plato’s Academy: Its Workings and its History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020.

Luxon, Thomas H., ed. “Paradise Regained”. The John Milton Reading Room, Book 4, ll. 237-251, January, 2021 [February 13, 2024].

Mommsen, Theodore E. (1942). “Petrarch's Conception of the ‘Dark Ages’”. Speculum. Cambridge MA: Medieval Academy of America. 17 (2): 226–242.